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Masters vs. Staying a 9th semester / 5th year

  1. Mar 10, 2008 #1
    All the admissions decisions are in, and I got rejected from most of my schools but I did get into one of my top choice's....Masters program.

    So I called this school's math department today and I got the rundown of being in the Masters program. I made it clear that it is not my intention to get a Masters or even be a masters student, I ultimately want to be a fully funded PhD student. I got the following response:
    1) There is a way to be favorably admitted to the PhD program via doing well in classes and getting a high mark on written exams.
    2) Chances of getting funded are extremely tough and there have been examples of stellar PhD (not even Masters) students who decided to enter without funding for 1 or 2 years who still have not gotten funding. Usually this school funds only 10-12 students a year, and regularly have 400-500 applicants.

    Here is my stance on this situation:
    I can work my butt off for my Masters, which would add up to ~ $40k in loans. Even if I get into the PhD program, my chances of funding are not great. The person who I spoke to in the department told me I might have to wait until my Oral exam to be funded.

    This is one of my top choices for grad school, but the possibility to having to wait 2-3 years to get funding, amassing about $60-70k in loans (if I can even borrow that much) does not seem very appealing.

    I'm considering turning down their Masters admissions and staying a 9th semester, or maybe a full 5th year.

    What I would do in the 5th year:
    1) Over this upcoming summer, one of the things I would do is study for my GRE Math subject exam score again. It has become clear to me that I need a great GRE score. Many of the schools said that once applications come in, unless the person has great letters of recommendations, the first way to cut them down is by GRE scores. I had an atrocious GRE Math score, but I'm confident if I study over the summer, I might be able to get a great GRE score.
    2) Take a grad course and two independent studies: one in general relativity and one in Lie Algebras and Particle Physics. Both independent studies have been confirmed and the professors have agreed to it. The general relativity independent study will probably involve me writing an undergraduate thesis and hopefully display my knowledge of both geometry, tensor analysis and physics. The Lie Algebra and Particle Physics independent study might also be used to write an undergraduate thesis, i.e. rigorously solve one of the problems in the graduate textbook.

    Over the summer I would also study a bit for these research projects, more in the way of background material.

    Here is my timeline:
    - Work 20-30 hours a week
    - Study for the GRE Math Subject exam 10 hours a week
    - Study for my independent studies 15-25 hours a week
    That is at worst a 65 hour week, which isn't too bad at all. I'm usually bored out of my mind during the summer vacation anyway.

    - Take a grad course (Topology I or Algebra I) and the two independent studies

    If I do well in these independent studies and my grad course, and I mean really well, I see my graduate application as this:

    1) High GRE Math Score (I'm aiming for an 85+% percentile score)
    2) 3 letters of recommendation - one from a professor that I worked with for 3 semesters and this semester might publish a paper on an unsolved problem, one from my general relativity professor (in the math department) that I would've worked with for 2 semesters (including Fall 2008) and one from a prominent physics professor at my school who I did my Lie Algebra independent study with, who I only did a semester with. But if I do really well and get a paper published and 2 undergraduate projects done, I see this as 3 really good letters.

    The recommenders that I might get a paper with is extremely well known in their field, my general relativity professor got their PhD a few years ago and is not as so well known and the professor I might get a recommendation from is very very well known in theoretical particle physics and string theory.
    3) High GPA from a top 10 (according to rankings) geometry school, ~ 3.8
    4) Done well in a grad course (though not comparable to some students who have taken 5-6 grad courses).

    Overall, I view this is as a very strong graduate school application and A MUCH stronger application than what I had in Fall 2007.

    Thanks in advance for the advice/help/tips.

    PS: I know I made a similar thread about staying a 5th year, but now this is staying a 5th year vs. doing a Masters.
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2008
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 10, 2008 #2
    I would say staying for a 5th year. I think you have a much better chance next year. ( also to get financial support)
    Last edited: Mar 10, 2008
  4. Mar 11, 2008 #3


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    What's the difference, money wise, between staying another year, and going somewhere else for a year to get a master's degree? It seems to me that you'd have to pay tuition where ever you are, and so I'd go for the masters to get another degree to my name before applying grad school again, rather than staying for another year.
  5. Mar 11, 2008 #4
    Staying a 5th year would cost me about $5000, this includes everything, down to food. One year of a masters is about $27k, that's only tuition. I would be living at home, so I would only need to pay for books and food occasionally.

    But I am really thinking I should at the very least get my Masters at this school and then apply to a PhD program somewhere else if they won't fund me.

    Now another question, if I get my masters at a well known institution, will they waive the first year courses for me at another PhD institution? In total, the masters would cost me about $40k in debt.

    I would also need to retake the GRE Math anyway wouldn't I? So maybe I should reapply for schools without staying a fifth year???
    Last edited: Mar 11, 2008
  6. Mar 11, 2008 #5
    The way I see it, there are three options:

    1. You go to grad school now and accrue debt. In two years you'll have a masters degree and have ~40k in debt.

    2. You wait a year. You nail your GRE. You publish a paper. You get great letters of recommendation. Your grad school app is much stronger. You get into a school that offers you support. You'll have a masters in three years, and have paid ~5k.

    3. You wait a year. For some reason or another, your situation does not improve. Worst of both worlds. You'll have a masters in three years and ~40k worth of debt.

    To me, #2 is the best choice, and it sounds like you're willing to work hard enough to make it happen.
  7. Mar 23, 2008 #6
    I got some more specifics of the masters program. I'll be taking a bunch of non-PhD courses and at most take 3-4 courses with PhD students. My main goal was to do the Masters, but take the full differential geometry course sequence, do really well, get great letters and transfer to a really good school for mathematical physics (Northwestern, Columbia) for my PhD. But it does not seem possible to do this.

    I don't know which way to go. My parents want me to do a masters because then I can stay by them and go to a "prestigious" school, but the school does not necessarily have what I want, and i'm still only a masters student there.

    My goal is to study mathematical physics. I am wondering what the hell I have to do to get this done.
  8. Mar 23, 2008 #7
    I think you should definitely stay where you are and

    - study for the math gre, this should be your main focus
    - take some classes for fun, maybe just one or two, don't overdo it and don't get your masters here
    - reapply next year, but this time don't be so limited in your choices, think about all the factors when choosing schools
    - read this book https://www.amazon.com/Mathematicia...=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1206318758&sr=8-1
    Last edited: Mar 23, 2008
  9. Mar 23, 2008 #8
    Hey thanks for the reply.

    I am definitely trying to get my GRE Score WAY UP. I am aiming for a 90% percentile score. I am reviewing calculus, algebra and other topics from undergrad and I plan on taking it October 2008 (whether or not i'm in grad school).

    If I stay a fifth year, I feel like I could get into a school that is strong in mathematical physics (Northwestern for example) and maybe even a better school if I work really really hard (Columbia hopefully). But if I do reapply, I would apply to some lower range schools like UCSB.

    I have Krantz's book and I got a lot from it, however, I gained nearly nothing from his admissions part. Krantz took seven grad courses and was a hot shot at his school. I cannot relate to that and he has no section about my situation.

    I think taking 2 grad courses and doing an independent study with a well known physics professor on Lie Algebras and particle physics will really boost my graduate school application. I would have all that, a possible publication, a way better GRE score and 2 really really good letters of recommendation and possibly a 3rd one.

    I am thinking about staying, but it would kill my parents to turn down the Masters. But I want to study at a school that is good in mathematical physics. This is my dream. I know even after all this, I'm still a long shot for Columbia or MIT or UCLA, but I HAVE TO TRY. I only have a few chances at something like this. I view this as one of my last chances to get into a great math-physics program.
  10. Mar 23, 2008 #9
    There was a time when I remember saying each of those things!

    In my case it indicated that I was very stressed out about being accepted to grad school. What I chose to do was remain where I was as an undergrad for another (5th) year, and although it was surely the right decision, it was also a very difficult year. Drawing out what should be a 9 month process into an 18 month process is always bound to take it's toll. My advice to you is to take the 5th year at home, but make sure not to over-stress out about getting into MIT. Instead of telling yourself that you will study more intensely that year, tell yourself that you will study at your normal rate and take on a new activity unrelated to math-phys (again, the reason is to prevent over-stress).

    P.S. It sounds like letters of recommendation was the weak-link in your applications.

    Tell your parents that you are determined to get a PhD, and the master's route doesn't actually look viable.
  11. Mar 23, 2008 #10
    I would really turn down the masters, I just thinking paying is a waste of money. The name of the school you go to isn't going to really matter too much when it comes time to finding a job, it will be your research, but I'm sure you already know this.

    About the math gre, i think if you score 700+ or even 650+/600+ that's enough to get into a good school(ie, a group I school by AMS rankings) because you seem have good grades and great recommendations. Remember once you get to graduate school all this will be behind you, so try not to worry(I know it's hard not too). With a better gre score and your other qualifications you will definitely get into several schools imo if you apply to the right places. Goodluck.
  12. Mar 30, 2008 #11
    So here is where I am at now:

    I have landed a possible independent study for Fall 2008 with a well known geometer at my school and a well known theoretical physicist at my school. Do you think 1 semester is enough to garner a great letter from these two professors? If I can get a good letter from either of these guys, I feel like I can get into a good PhD program with funding.

    I would study for the GRE Math this summer (along with this I would be brushing up on my calculus, algebra, linear algebra, analysis, etc) and study geometry and physics hardcore to prepare for these independent studies. I'm hoping that I can prepare myself well enough to really just demolish these independent studies, really impress them every meeting and get great recommendations.
  13. Mar 30, 2008 #12
    [slightly off topic]

    I read the http://books.google.com/books?id=-U...alled+the"&source=gbs_quotes_s&cad=2#PPP1,M1" chapter on Google Books. It looks really good, and the majority of the material seems to translate pretty readily to advice on physics grad schools. Do you think this would also be a wise investment for a physics major? Or is there a similar book for physics majors? I did some brief searching and didn't turn up anything particularly compelling.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 23, 2017
  14. Mar 30, 2008 #13
    I have the book and I have read through it various times. I don't know how relevant the whole book is. Parts of it definitely will be relevant as they relate to graduate life in general. But other pars focus on prelim exams, how to obtain tenure track positions (which I don't know if the procedure is the same for physics as it is in math).

    But it can't hurt to buy the book. It is worth it just for the advice on being a graduate student. The tenure track stuff might differ and the last few chapters go over material a math grad student should know.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 23, 2017
  15. Mar 30, 2008 #14
    I just ordered it. Thanks!
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